SUPPLE RELIGION FEATURE WRITER OF THE YEAR
Townsend - #2
Putting the fear of God back into Christianity
Too many preachers only tell faithful what they want to hear, Cornerstone pastor says in
By Tim Townsend
Francis Chan looked relaxed as he sat on a grungy couch backstage at the Roberts Orpheum Theatre on
Tuesday. Dressed in ripped jeans, a plaid shirt and white sneakers, Chan threw oral grenades through
the door of the modern church.
"Pastors sell people on God, " he said. "We talk people into God, and to sell God to them, we have to
sell them on the parts of God they'll like. It's like selling vacuum cleaners - you focus on the features
people will like. We don't often talk about the parts of God people wouldn't like."
Chan, 43, is the pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, a 4,000-member congregation in Simi
Valley, Calif. He was in St. Louis to address attendees of the International Christian Retail Show, which
brought 7,000 people to the America's Center this week.
"If people were to read the Bible for themselves, rather than listen to pastors who take verses out of
context, they would realize there's a reason to fear the Lord, " Chan continued. "If God were to speak
audibly today, he'd say, 'These people do not fear me, '" he added.
Fearing God is an ancient theme, and often thought to be the exclusive domain of the Hebrew Bible, or
Old Testament. But the truth is more complicated, according to biblical scholars.
While it's true that in much of the Hebrew Bible, "when God appears, you're going to be afraid, " said
Marc Brettler, "it's important to note that fearing God is not the only emotional attitude" of the
Israelites. "It's not as simple as the common view that the Old Testament features a God of fear and the
New Testament a God of love."
Brettler, professor of biblical studies at Brandeis University and author of "How to Read the Jewish
Bible, " said after the scenes of fear and trembling among the Israelites that accompany the giving of
the Ten Commandments in Exodus, 74 people "ascend Mt. Sinai to eat and drink in the divine
And the New Testament is not all about grace, forgiveness and love, said Chan. He points to a verse in
the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus depicts God as violent and vengeful. "Do not fear those who kill
the body but cannot kill the soul, " Jesus says, "rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in
"They don't hold that verse up at football games, " Chan said.
Chan was at the Orpheum to première a new short film called "BASIC. Fear God." It's the first in the
series of seven "BASIC" films Chan has shot in what amounts to a stylized exegesis for the YouTube
generation. Other subjects include "Follow Jesus, " "Holy Spirit, " "Fellowship, " "Teaching, " "Prayer"
In "Fear God, " Chan points to Psalm 111:10: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all
those who practice it have a good understanding." His sermon is inter cut with a scene of a beautiful
woman on a bed, in a white room, that's slowly filling up with water. The water eventually overwhelms
the woman and her face goes from placid to worried.
Chan says in the film that while some have assumed fearing God in the Bible just meant reverence or
awe, "when I read the Bible, it looks like real fear to me. It appears they are terrified."
"The reality is that whoever you are, the moment you see God, you are going to fear him, " Chan says.
"We all will."
Douglas Knight, professor of Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, said the notion of fear in the
Hebrew Bible came directly out of the lives the people depicted were leading.
The same Hebrew word used for fearing God - transliterated as "yara" - is also used by biblical authors
to describe nonreligious fear: fear of animals, fear of war and fear of death.
Brettler said there is also a difference in the Hebrew phrases that translate into "fear God" and "fear of
"'Fear of God' is a technical term and nothing to do with our concept of fear at all, " he said. "It's a
general term for religiosity."
So when the author of Proverbs writes "then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the
knowledge of God, " he is talking about faith leading to wisdom.
"It expresses a whole mindset, which includes fear, but is not predominantly focused on fear, " Brettler
Much of that nuance is lost on today's believers, said Knight, and yet the fear of God can be understood
in the randomness of everyday tragedy.
"People are fearful of a vengeful God, or an arbitrary or unpredictable God that dispenses cancer,
hurricanes and droughts, " Knight said.
"Am I a God nearby, " God asks in Jeremiah, "and not a God far off?"
"This is not a chummy God; it's a God who demands worship, but who holds himself at a distance from
us, as well as close, " Knight said. "Fear of God means acknowledging and respecting that distance and
yet still worshipping God in spite of it."
That recognition of God as the holy other is unlike anything else in human relationships, according to
Knight. Part of the fear of God is simply acknowledging the difficulty of encountering a force that is
beyond human understanding.
"That's kind of unsettling, " Knight said. "Do you hear about that much from the pulpits? Probably
And that's Chan's ultimate point. A shiny, happy, welcoming Christianity is much more conducive to
the modern interpretation of Christ's commandment at the end of the Gospel of Matthew to make new
disciples by "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you."
A church with the hellfire-and-brimstone style of Puritan preachers like Cotton Mather or Jonathan
Edwards is unlikely to be attractive to today's church-shopping masses.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul urges the Ephesian church leader to "be persistent" in his teaching, to
"convince, rebuke and encourage, with the utmost patience."
"For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, " Paul wrote, "but having
itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires ..."
Chan, who founded Cornerstone in 1994, announced in April that he would leave his church to pursue a
different ministry. Whatever Chan chooses to do, it's likely he'll continue his assault on a modern
American Christianity he considers "arrogant."
"We tell them what their itching ears want to hear - that's how pastors get popular, " he said back stage
at the Orpheum before his film's première. "It's a big church and a lot of people have fallen in love with
it. But if we were doing this right, there should be a lot more people who hate us."
After 400 years, liberty, religion remain at odds
Does the Tea Party represent end to latest manifestation of religious awakening?
By Tim Townsend
In his speech at Washington University this week, former Newsweek editor and Pulitzer Prize winner
Jon Meacham quoted Augustine by way of explaining his own take on the historic relationship between
the American people, religion and the Enlightenment philosophy at the root of the country's founding.
In "City of God, " Augustine defined a people as "the association of a multitude of rational beings
united by a common agreement on the objects of their love."
One week before a particularly contentious midterm election, the people who make up the United
States were finding it difficult to agree on what those objects are. Instead, the people were in, as
Meacham put it, "a moment in which the attack culture has subsumed everything else."
In his speech, the inaugural event of the university's new Danforth Center on Religion & Politics,
Meacham's reference to an Augustinian "common agreement" served as a wistful reminder of the motto
on the country's Great Seal - "Out of many, one."
Meacham is a journalist and a historian. His Pulitzer was awarded in 2009 for "American Lion, " a
biography of Andrew Jackson. He is a specialist on the nexus of religion and politics. His speech this
week was called "God & Politics: From George Washington to Barack Obama." A previous book was
called "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation."
"It is liberty, less than religion, " Meacham said in his speech, "that holds us together."
Ever since the country's founding, two of its defining features have been at odds.
The Declaration of Independence was about protecting individual rights and was based on the ideas of
the Enlightenment - Jefferson and Madison by way of Locke and Rousseau.
Those ideas say man is essentially good and that society should allow him to prosper according to that
good nature. By pursuing his own interests and desires, man will accomplish good not just for himself,
but for society.
On the obverse side of the Great Seal - sometimes called the spiritual side - another motto reveals the
importance of religious faith to the Founders: Annuit Cœptis, or "God has favored our undertakings."
Despite the Founders' stress on religion, the underpinnings of Enlightenment thought don't mesh easily
with Christian theology.
While the United States is not a "Christian nation, " as many American Christians today like to describe
it - in the sense that the country's founding principles are based on Christian theology - there's no
denying the piety of the Puritans who first came ashore in Massachusetts.
The mission of John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 was to construct a new
society in a New World in which a new covenant would be agreed upon between God and his new
But by the early years of the new republic, the Enlightenment values of the Founding Fathers had
overshadowed a specifically Christian theology that stressed man's duties and responsibilities for his
fellow man, according to Mark McGarvie, a history professor at the University of Richmond. Man's
obligation was not to individual freedom, according to Christian thought, but for the greater social good
through faith in God and adherence to biblical teaching.
"Both are at the root of American democracy, " McGarvie said. "And 400 years later, we're still fighting
each other to reconcile them."
Those fights began in the early 19th century, soon after the adoption of the Constitution. The Second
Great Awakening included what McGarvie calls a "refutation of Jeffersonian liberalism, " during which
Christian clergy called it shameful that the framers declined to thank Jesus Christ in the Constitution's
Eras of spiritual fervency have waxed and waned in American social and political life ever since. The
latest, Meacham pointed out, began picking up steam around the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision
that declared it unconstitutional for public schools to require recitation of prayer and gathered speed
with the court's Roe. v. Wade decision in 1973.
McGarvie said the latest Great Awakening began in earnest in the 1980s, as evangelical movements and
their leaders gained real political power. These American moments of spiritual fervency tend to last
about 30 years, he said, which would mean the latest Great Awakening is waning.
Is it possible that the Tea Party movement that's shaken up this election season could represent the end
of the political manifestation of this latest Christian awakening? That what the Rev. Jerry Falwell's
Moral Majority, begun in 1979, has ended with Christine O'Donnell?
McGarvie sees a fragmentation among conservatives down libertarian lines.
"Tea Partyers are less concerned about the moral issues and more concerned about economic ones, " he
said. "While conservative Christians still say, 'We need government to protect our morality, to protect
us from ourselves.'"
The Tea Party "is nationalistic, not moralistic, " Meacham said in an interview this week before his
speech. The absence of talk about "values voters" and social issues in this election season may be
attributable almost completely to the flagging economy, or it might be an indication that over a
generation, voters have become accustomed to thinking of religion as only a part of their voting
"I like to think it's because people appreciate either intuitively or explicitly, consciously, that things are
best when religion is one factor, and not the driving factor, " Meacham said.
Tea Party leaders connect their movement to American mythology - an act of fiscal rebellion in 1773
that signaled frustration with nonrepresentative authority from afar, and hinted at a willingness to move
Three years later, American rebels made good on their threat.
In a conversation before Meacham's speech, former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, namesake of
Washington University's new center and political descendant of the first U.S. senators 222 years ago,
said he didn't know what to make of the Tea Party. He said he believes the movement's focus on fiscal
issues and away from "wedge issues" was positive.
"But I don't know, when it comes right down to it, what they would be for, " Danforth said. "I mean, it's
one thing to say government is exploding out of control, but it's another thing to say, 'OK, here's what
we're going to do about it.'"
Hats offer salute to Scripture
Women at church convocation in St. Louis take St. Paul's words to heart.
By Tim Townsend
When the apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Christian church in Corinth 20 years or so after the
death of Christ, it's unlikely he had the $599 Satin Ivory & Black Crystal Tower from Shellie
McDowell Millinery in mind.
"Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head, " Paul wrote to the
Corinthians. "It is one and the same thing as having her head shaved."
It's a fragment of Scripture that Christians have variously ignored and revered in the 2,000 years since
it was written. On display this week in St. Louis - as 40,000 members of the Church of God in Christ
gather downtown for their Holy Convocation - is an exuberant reverence for Paul's words.
"Our ladies do wear their hats, " the Church of God in Christ leader, Bishop Charles Blake, said earlier
this week at a news conference. "They have that in common with the Queen of England."
Indeed, more than a third of the nearly 200 exhibitors' booths at America's Center were peddling a vast
array of women's hats this week. Men in sharp dark suits and bright shoes carried two or three drum
boxes as they trailed their be-hatted wives zigzagging through the convention center exhibitor floor.
"I come every year to get a look at the hats, " said Kay Slack of Los Angeles, who was shopping at the
Chapeau Designs booth. "A hat says you're a lady. It says you care."
Blake said the preponderance of elaborate hats at the denomination's Holy Convocation is in line with
the saints' - as church members are called - tradition of dressing up to worship God.
"When you come before the Lord, we think you should be as well-dressed as when you come before
the president or any dignitary, " Blake said, adding later that the hats are part of a celebration "of what
God has done for us, and who God is in our lives."
Victor Paul Furnish, a New Testament scholar at Southern Methodist University, has written that Paul's
instruction to the Christian women of Corinth to veil themselves likely comes from the notion that
loose, flowing hair was associated with promiscuous women or priestesses of pagan cults.
The Church of God in Christ is the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination in the country
with 6.5 million members.
But it's not only Protestant African-American churches that adhere to a head-covering ritual.
Some streams of Judaism believe that wearing a head covering in a synagogue signals a reverence for
God above. Traditionalist Catholic women sometimes wear lace veils on top of their heads during
Mass. Head coverings are a well-known practice for some Muslim women. A Sikh's turban is a
reminder of his connection with God.
The hats on display in St. Louis this week are about adhering to biblical principles, but they're also
about tradition in the century-old Christian denomination.
"I was born in this church, and for as long as I can remember, women had their heads covered, " said
Delores Peterson, 55, of Houston. "That's what you do when you're in the house of the Lord."
Diane Johnson, minding her daughter's booth, "Diane's Hats, " said she had been wearing hats to
church since she was 18.
"I remember being a little girl, and seeing my grandma wearing a hat and thinking, 'I can't wait until
I'm old enough to wear a hat, '" Johnson said. "An important part of this church for women is to
educate younger women. We're supposed to train the next generation of women, and passing on this
tradition is part of that."
Gwendolyn O'Neal, a professor of consumer, apparel and retail studies at the University of North
Carolina at Greensboro, said the tradition of fancy hats in African-American churches goes back further
than the turn of the last century, and predates African-American Christianity.
O'Neal, whose research focuses on African-American aesthetic of dress, said part of that aesthetic "can
be traced to West African cultures during the enslaving years."
The head is central to West African art, she said, typified in drawings of people with exaggerated and
highly adorned headdresses, especially in African rituals where "adornment of the head is extremely
But the recession has also hit hats.
Paula Ellis, store manager for Shellie McDowell Millinery, said her hats sell for $59 to $800 and are
designed to accessorize St. John women's suits. In recent years, Ellis said, it would not have been
unusual for women to buy two or three hats during the conference.
"Now they're looking to buy just one good one, " she said.
Age is also a factor in women's hats. For a long time, church hats were the domain for older women.
Recently, though, hats have become more fashionable, and younger women are donning them, said Ann
Dillon, 80, co-owner (with her sister, Bessie Hicks, 82) of Ann's Hats on the corner of Euclid Avenue
and Delmar Boulevard.
The sisters have owned the shop for 35 years, and while older women still buy the majority of Dillon's
and Hicks' hats - which run from $20 to $200 - younger women are becoming customers in greater
numbers than ever before, Dillon said.
"When I started out in 1976, hats were out, " she said. "Now hats are back."